The publication of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines in 1987 transformed English travel writing; it made it cool. For the previous half century, travel writing seemed to consist either of grim, extended journeys through desolate landscapes or jokes about foreigners. And the leading figures—such as Wilfred Thesiger or Robert Byron—in their tweed suits were celebrated for neither their prose nor their charm. But Chatwin was as attractive as a person as he was as a writer. The New York Times review of The Songlines ran: “Nearly every writer of my generation in England has wanted, at some point, to be Bruce Chatwin, wanted to be talked about, as he is, with raucous envy; wanted, above all, to have written his books.”
I was no exception. Aged twenty, I thought that even his untruths were immensely erudite. I made eighteen notes on the first page of his novel Utz. I scrutinized his use of the imperfect tense and wondered whether the pallbearers could really have smelled the baking bread over the scent of the cleaning fluid. But mostly I was in awe, tracing the echoes of images, his concision, his erudition (“surely his comment on ‘the passionate collector’ is a reference to Wittgenstein on St. Augustine”). I memorized and can still recite “At Dinner with Diana Vreeland” from his collection What Am I Doing Here?:
“What are you writing about Bruce?”
“Wales, Diana.” …
“Whales!” she said. “Blue whales!…Sperrrm whales!…THE WHITE WHALE!”
“No … no, Diana! Wales! Welsh Wales! The country to the west of England.”
“Oh! Wales. I do know Wales. Little grey houses…covered in roses…in the rain…”
The Songlines begins with an introduction to “Bruce” and his companion, “Arkady.” The first act of twelve scenes takes places in a single day in Alice Springs. In the second act of twelve scenes, Bruce and Arkady go on a three-day journey through the bush. In the third act, Bruce sits down in a settlement for a fortnight to review his notebooks. And in the epilogue, Arkady rejoins him. All this, as Nicholas Shakespeare shows in his sensitive, warm, and intelligent biography, is closely based on reality. The episodes in Alice Springs record real encounters in February 1982 with Toly Sawenko (“Arkady”), Phillip Toyne (“the gym bore”), and Pat Dodson (“Father Flynn”). The second act is based on a trip with Toly/Arkady to the outback (they visited Ti-Tree, Stirling, and Osborne Creek between February 8 and February 10, 1982). And the third act is based on time Chatwin spent in the settlement of Kintore (“Cullen”) as the guest of Rob Novak (“Rolf”) from March 18 to April 1 of 1983.
The “Notebooks” which form the third section of the book consist of more than a hundred vignettes, quotes, and episodes—each between seventy and seven hundred words long. Scraps of academic research, lines of poetry, epiphanies on desert tracks, fragments of ancient lore; references to Muslim pilgrims, Indian monks, Lapland legends, modern Florida, Elizabethan plays; reflections on Stone-Age humans, nomadic tribes, and ancient myths, are combined to suggest that humans are forged and defined by two things—“the beast in the dark” and “the nomadic instinct.”
Chatwin’s exposure to the Aboriginal tsuringa-tracks, or songlines, on his Australian trip completed two decades of writing about the nomadic instinct. In Chatwin’s understanding of the Aboriginal myth of creation, the totem ancestors—the great kangaroo, or the dream-snake—first sung themselves into existence and then, as they began to walk across the landscape, sung every feature of the natural world into existence. Each time they sung a rock or a stream, it came into existence. The Aborigines who inherited and learned these creation songs, each specific to their totem, could navigate for hundreds of miles across featureless desert by singing the song in time with their steps, and they could recognize every real feature of the landscape as they sang it. For Chatwin, these songlines linked nomadism to the act of creation itself (both literal and artistic), and his interest in travel to ancient myths.
The Songlines struck me, on first reading it, almost as a sacred text around which I could arrange my life and meaning. A decade later, I wrote in a notebook three days’ walk east of Herat:
Most of human history was conducted through contacts, made at walking pace…the pilgrimages to Compostela in Spain…to the source of the Ganges, and wandering dervishes, sadhus, and friars, who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking, and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the Lakes. Bruce Chatwin concluded from all these things that we would think and live better, and be closer to our purpose as humans, if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth.
The Songlines was one of the reasons that I left my job and spent a year and a half crossing parts of Asia, entirely on foot. Chatwin made me imagine that I could internalize a continuous unfolding line of footprints—stretching across six thousand miles—and perhaps even be able to call these steps back, and re-create the whole long journey in my memory. I tried to compose epic poems to the rhythm of my footfalls across the Iranian desert; in India I carried the Bhagavad Gita in my hand and read a line at a time; in Nepal I focused on breathing meditation. And I imagined I would arrive like some legendary wanderer with cloak and staff, to the marvel of the villagers.
The reality was different. Rural communities—including nomads—were not interested in me, and certainly not impressed. They encouraged me to travel by bus and when I refused, they often ignored me. If serenity emerged through walking, it was at most for an hour out of each day’s nine-hour walk, and nineteen months of travel did not make me more serene. My mind flitted from half-remembered poetry to memories of things I had done back home of which I was ashamed.
I experienced not an unfurling discovery, but harsh disconnected fragments: the chafe of the pack, a pain in the knee; I worried about the next meal, or the route. It was often repetitive, boring, and frustrating, and difficult to grasp what people were saying, even when I knew the words. Much of what I saw and heard was contradictory. I could not confidently describe it. And even the most remote stages of the journey were defined not by the deep rhythm of long-distance footfalls but by encounters with people—suspicious, and generous, with strange manners and difficult dialects—whose context I could not understand.
This is not the way that Chatwin describes the world—and not the way he experienced it. In his facts and in his fiction (he once observed that he didn’t think there was a distinction), the world is intricate but not opaque. Everything, from Aboriginal myths to childhood memories and adult encounters, is fixed, placed, and overdetermined. The connections between his darting brief images may be omitted, but they are not ambiguous, and the reader can only draw one conclusion from his parables. Chatwin does not second-guess himself and he does not expect the reader to second-guess him either.
His clarity and confidence draws on an improbable range of references and experiences, mirrored in every dateline of his notebooks in The Songlines. He tells us he has been in “Picos, Piaui, Brazil,” “Djang, Cameroon,” “Kabul,” “Miami,” “The Night express from Moscow to Kiev,” Dakar, Senegal, Kalevala, Sydney, Sudan, Timbuktu, Yunnan, Persia, and Niger. He has sophisticated tastes (his notebooks are made in France) and obsessions (he claims, in letters, essays, and books, to spot and smell his favorite semimythical beast—the leopard—in Nepal, Kumaon, and the Hindu Kush). But he is a tough guy. Even Australians rely on him to make fires, change tires in the desert, fix roofs, and calmly rig up a ground sheet against snakes (or at least, so it appears). His comments, though laconic, are learned. This is a man who knows his Malevich from his Melnikov, and his witchetty grub from his caterpillar. And he does not have the anxieties of an anthropologist.
Curiously, for books that take place in extraordinary landscapes, Chatwin very rarely describes landscape. The individuals, however, are exactingly detailed, stark, vivid, and surreally detached from their context—like an Expressionist painting but more explicit. They do not invite doubt. He can unpack the meaning of a tiny gesture—as when on a Patagonian farm, he pinpoints a relationship through the serving of a slice of pink cake. And he can read the unspoken thoughts of a farmer (“I could tell by what he did not say that he missed the peon”). He seems to have seen everything before, and to be unchanged by his remarkable experiences.
It is difficult to believe today, as Chatwin’s contemporaries did, that he was simply an extraordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened. Perhaps critics couldn’t detect his inventions as easily, at the time of their publication, because in the last days of hippies on the overland trail, travels like Arkady’s in Asia, or Chatwin’s with nomads, were conventions of the time, which still seemed to have depth and vitality. Perhaps we didn’t want to detect them because myths about aesthetic tribes, or about erudite English Hemingways, were still so appealing. Perhaps we simply wanted to believe that the world was as replete with rich coincidences and meanings—as overdetermined—as Chatwin wanted it to be. Or perhaps the fault lies with the intervening years, in which his fantasies and style proved so addictive that a thousand imitations have marred the original.
Today, however, Chatwin’s fictions seem more transparent. We may not be too surprised to discover the journeys with nomads for which he “quit his job,” and which John Lanchester admired, were brief interludes in a period more accurately described as Chatwin getting married and becoming an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. And the passages, suffused with symbolic and literary resonances, that once seemed most impressive, no longer seem the most satisfying. His personality, his learning, his myths, and even his prose, are less hypnotizing. And yet he remains a great writer, of deep and enduring importance.
The magic of The Songlines lies for me today in the central section, which records what Chatwin observed on February 8, 9, and 10 in 1982 with Toly Sawenko in Ti-Tree, Stirling, and Osborne Bore. The account is precise, understated, beautifully written, and, in an important sense, truthful. Someone as mythically inclined as Chatwin must have been tempted to portray Aborigines either as tragic victims or noble savages. But in his first glimpse of an Aboriginal settlement, he immediately shows us that he is better than that—much better than that. This is not an idyllic grove:
around an expanse of red dirt, were about twenty humpies; half-cylinders of corrugated sheet, open-ended like pig-shelters, with people lying or squatting in the shade. Paper cartons and bits of sheet plastic were flying in the wind, and over the whole settlement there was a glint of glass. Glossy black crows hopped here and there, blinking their jaundice-coloured eyes and pecking at old bully beef cans, until driven off by the dogs.
Many of these people are sick, some are apparently addicts, few have any formal employment, and they live in shabby clothes, asleep during the day, in environments of “fly-blown” squalor. But they are not victims. In fact, they emerge as figures of scope, and challenging autonomy. They repeatedly put him and others to shame. But he is not over-reverential or solemn in his depiction of them. They are dressed in comical rags, and they do not speak grammatical English. There are moments where their mysterious smiles, or sudden gestures and spontaneity, seem childlike. Chatwin is confident enough to describe this, and point out their moments of pomposity without belittling them. When the barefoot Alan, having “looked through Arkady and majestically lowered his head” and retired hack into his derelict Volkswagen van, Arkady and Bruce retreat.
“Reminds me of Haile Selassie,” I said as we walked away.
“Much grander,” I agreed.
Adapted from Rory Stewart’s Introduction to The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, to be published by Penguin Viking on June 26, 2012. Introduction copyright ©2012, Rory Stewart. In 1989, Bruce Chatwin wrote an essay for The New York Review about a South African composer who wrote a string quartet inspired by The Songlines.